This essay is adapted from a deleted chapter from Field Notes from a Pandemic: A Journey Through a World Suspended, published by Signal/McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada. Copyright @ Ethan Lou, 2020.
No matter what country you govern, no matter your position, there is something nearly every world leader has done amid the COVID-19 pandemic: making a war reference. There are the direct Second World War comparisons, made by everyone from Germany’s Angela Merkel to Australia’s Scott Morrison to Italy’s Giuseppe Conte to the United Nations’ António Guterres. There is the veiled reference by Queen Elizabeth. There is a Singaporean cabinet minister, a former general, who said he planned facemask distribution “literally like a military operation.” There is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s dramatic rendition: “There is no front line marked with barbed wire, no soldiers to be destroyed across the ocean, no enemy combatants to defeat. Instead, the frontline is everywhere.”
There is also U.S. President Donald Trump’s calling himself a “wartime president.” And then there is Jim Richardson, the U.S. State Department’s director of foreign assistance, who really exemplifies the red-blooded rebellion that founded his country: “The United States is riding to the sounds of the gun, boldly heading into the fight.” And it’s not just the politicians and bureaucrats. Healthcare workers, actors, academics and even journalists are doing it. A headline in Canada’s Globe and Mail reads: “We are at war with COVID-19. We need to fight it like a war.”
Critics have questioned if such language is necessary, even healthy. But to talk that way is natural. Everyone had gravitated toward it, even where was no secret meeting to co-ordinate the battlefield speak. In strange and difficult times, everyone had been drawn to the familiar. War is humanity’s history and heritage. It beats in our hearts and burns in our bones. Thus that attraction toward such language is also a bit like an omen. Perhaps, like how bones ache ahead of the storm, in that primal part of us, there was an inkling that the impact of COVID-19 will be like that of war. So to really appreciate the pandemic’s long-term effects, we need to understand how the conflicts of the past have shaped our world — they have shaped everything we know. And that points to a hard truth: to our perception, COVID-19 is a war, and it will redefine the world.
We live under a system that had risen from the battlefield. The United States had been relatively unmarred by the Second World War and in its aftermath, was the sole country to have the conflict-ending atomic bomb. It thus emerged a greater power than it had ever been, and partly through the gargantuan aid money it sent the battered Europe, it reformed the world in its image.
The pre-war era had been rich in diverse structures, including monarchies and authoritarian governments, and half the map was colonized. But with the war, the world was taught how the fascists of the Axis powers Germany and Italy will always crumble and live defeated. And the empires lost their grip. The systems of the victors, democracy, thus spread as new countries sprouted. And so did the way of the world. Like how within countries, there are their governments, between them, there rose a global structure and system: the web of bilateral and multilateral agreements, military alliances, international and trade pacts we know today, the so-called liberal international order. Yet it is not just the framework under which we live — the divisions that we now know came out of the war, too, for the United State was not unopposed in trying to remake the world in its image.
Just as quickly as the conflict winded down, the world would fall along new lines, as new adversaries vied for global influence. A tide of Communism rose with the Soviet Union, and along with it, the U.S.-led NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). While the former did fall apart, NATO has remained arguably the world’s most powerful military pact, and the Soviet successor state, the Russian Federation, continues to challenge the alliance till this day. That is just like how the post-war partition of Germany and the unprecedentedly polarizing division of Europe had left a lasting socio-economic gulf between east and west, both within the country and on the continent; just like how the totalitarian and hostile North Korea traces its formation to the peninsula’s own post-war division; just like how the Arab-Israeli conflict sprang from the carving out of an independent Jewish state in 1948, a cause behind which a newly risen United States threw its weight; and just like how today’s tensions between India and Pakistan were seeded when the war-weakened British Empire partitioned the subcontinent in a most ridiculous way as it gave up its dominion. When you look at it, nearly everything we know today, big-picture-wise in the world, every facet of modern geopolitics had come in some way from the Second World War. When world leaders compare the COVID-19 pandemic to that conflict, it’s hard not to pay attention.
On a different scale, a similar reshaping had happened in the aftermath of another conflict, the one that began on Sept. 11, 2001. The preceding American decade had been marked by President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, a mixture of sex scandal and political infighting. With the attacks, a new, more serious era began. In the debut episode of The Wire—among shows that heralded a new age in television, proliferating the medium and elevating it into a quasi-conduit for collective consciousness—a U.S. federal agent says the bulk of resources has been “transferred to counter-terrorism.” The episode aired less than a year after 9/11, but already, it was being written into our minds that, as the agent says, everything changed “since those towers fell.” Ben Rhodes, an aide to the two-term U.S. President Barrack Obama, describes in the Atlantic a visit to the Central Intelligence Agency: “In a large windowless room in the bowels of the CIA, there is a sign that reads, ‘Every day is September 12th.’” That is a statement not just for the spies, for when America enters a new day, so does the rest of the world.
So much of the current zeitgeist can be traced back to 9/11: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the body now under immense fire for its treatment of undocumented immigrants, had been then created from scratch. The U.S.-led expansive global surveillance on people’s Internet activity, as exposed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, was part of an event-chain sparked by the post-attack erosion of civil liberties. The Iraq war conflict had sprang from the 9/11-sparked invasion of Afghanistan and both had left, till this day, instability and never-ending war in the Middle East. And from that pit sprouted the Islamic State militants, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, who kill and pillage through Iraq and Syria and inspire mass killings abroad. As of 2018, nearly four times as many Sunni Islamic militants operate around the world as compared to Sept. 11, 2001.
Obama himself “would not have been elected as the 44th president of the United States were it not for 9/11,” Rhodes writes, saying his former boss’s Iraq War opposition had clinched his party’s backing from his rival Hillary Clinton. And if Obama is a product of that day, then so is President Trump, for a commonly cited reason for his seeking office was a hatred of his predecessor. As well, as Rhodes writes, Trump’s ascension was a result of the collective mood at the time, for he “could not have become president without the architecture of right-wing media, chiefly Fox News, that blossomed after the attacks.”
To be sure, the impacts of single events are not easily disentangled from the other factors. How much is change sparked by a single event, and how much is just the broad sweep of history? Yet there is no question the last 20 years of our societal arc have been entirely coloured by one event. Sons have followed fathers into the war in Afghanistan — a phenomenon that began as a satirical Onion headline, eventually becoming an actual news item. Such is the impact of a crisis. Thus, the way everyone just flocked to such combat descriptions for the pandemic — perhaps in instinct, there is wisdom beyond knowledge.
When 2020’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo were postponed due to the pandemic, that was unprecedented in peace. Since the competition had been revived in Athens in the late 1800s, only in three years had the Games ever been cancelled: 1916, 1940 and 1944. That is not the lone parallel. Countries’ scrambles for supplies and their citizens’ fevered stockpiling evoke wartime rationing. And with the restrictions on civil liberties; the piling bodies; the fear and the panic; the fleeing of the affected areas; the disruption of lives, but with an inequity of impact; the economic fallout; and, by the day, the dread compounding in its endless, beating march — what is this but a war?
Of course, this time, there are no soldiers rushing the front, no hills slick with blood, no acrid powder in the air and no screeching death from the skies. The true similarity goes beyond the superficial. It’s about how such events grip us. A crisis absorbs our attention for so long and so intensely that, at the end, nobody remembers what they were thinking or doing before — and when the slate is wiped clean in that way, the world that emerges from the cataclysm will not be the same as the one left behind. A crisis, whatever the kind, is a big reset button. With COVID-19, the old world, one defined by old conflicts, is no more. The Obama aide Rhodes’s piece in Atlantic, about the attack on New York, was headlined, “9/11 No Longer Defines Our World.” With the pandemic and its upheaval, Rhodes writes, “it is time to finally end the chapter of our history that began on September 11, 2001.”
Rhodes is optimistic about the new chapter, flush with hope that what in his view had been the altered course of his country — and therefore the world — could finally be rectified. Perhaps Rhodes hopes for a resurgence of what he calls “a high-water mark of Obama’s international leadership”: the man’s handling of the Ebola crisis of 2014, when he deployed the military, melded public-health and national-security infrastructure and recruited dozens of countries. Against a new common enemy, maybe the fractured world can stand united.
But in opposition to Rhodes, there is the pessimistic view. China and Russia have stepped up disinformation campaigns, bent on undermining the West-led world order. Both see the pandemic as an opportunity, analysts say. That is particularly so for China, which is restarting its economy while others’ are still reeling. It pledged more money to the World Health Organization when the United States pulled funding, started handing out facemasks around the world and bore down on Hong Kong while the world’s attention is divided. Meanwhile, the United States is marred by constant chaos and harsh lockdowns threaten to return to Europe. Post-pandemic, we could be headed toward more rivalry between the major powers and a Balkanization of the world.
It is anyone’s guess how events will ultimately turn out. But what is certain is that everything will be different — just like how past wars have shaped the current world. So striking is that parallel, the 97-year-old Henry Kissinger, secretary of state and national security adviser to two U.S. presidents, who hasn’t written in the Wall Street Journal in nearly three years, reappeared in its pages in April. The man who had shaped American foreign policy for decades felt he had to say something. Kissinger’s warning about COVID-19’s altering of the world was particularly persuasive, not so much due to the argument, but his perspective. Unlike most world leaders who compared the pandemic to the Second World War, Kissinger was not merely making a comparison in theory, but drawing from actual experience. The Queen may have lived through the time of the conflict and even served in the armed forces as a driver and mechanic, but Kissinger fought through it on the front. “The surreal atmosphere of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he writes, “calls to mind how I felt as a young man in the 84th Infantry Division.”